July 17, 1945
Billy Brock, An Unsung Hero Of Early Aviation
West Liberty Boy Began Flying When Eleven
(EDITOR'S FOREWORD: These stories concerning the career of Billy Brock, the West Liberty boy who helped pave the way for modern aviation, were prepared by one of his close personal friends and Army air corps associates Attorney Edgar W. Tait, 403 Scioto Street.
It was Tait who, as post adjutant at Park Field, Tennessee during World War I, awarded Brock the lieutenant's commission which transformed him from a civilian army flying instructor to a full fledged military pilot. The commission was awarded at Wright Field.
Since then the two men maintained a close personal friendship visiting one another whenever possible. Their last meeting was in Pittsburgh shortly before Brock's death.)
In the past three articles, we have written about Billy Brock of West Liberty and Springfield. We would like to tell you something of this boy's craving urge to fly, and of his flying education. Some of these facts were proddingly picked out from Billy, for he was not much of a talker about himself. Some of this story was furnished by others who knew him. Here is the story:
The story starts at West Liberty, when Billy was eleven years old. The Wright Brothers had made their Kitty Hawk flight a few years before. They had conducted their experiments at an historic place between Springfield and Dayton. That part of Ohio was already air-conscious, and Billy began to think of nothing but flying. He started to work, building a pair of wings. He used whatever sticks he could pick up around the neighborhood. He managed to beg a couple of old sheets from his mother, for the wing fabric. Finally, the wings suited him. He strapped them onto his arms, climbed to the top of his father's barn, and jumped off. The experiment was not entirely a success. He glided a few rods, thee wings smashed on the landing, but he broke no bones.
Four years later, when he was fifteen years old, Billy heard about Glenn Curtiss' flying school at Hammondsport, New York. He had a little money saved, just enough to pay his railroad fare there, so off he started for Hammondsport. He walked into Glenn Curtiss' office, and said he had come to learn to fly. Glenn Curtiss asked him how old he was and he replied, "Eighteen." He was well developed for his age, so he got away with that. Then Curtiss said: "The tuition will be $150." Billy said: "Why I never thought about you charging for teaching, and I don't have that much money." Curtiss said: "How much do you have?" and Billy answered, "Sixty-five cents." Curtiss said: "Well, you had better write to your folks for enough money to get home. In the meantime, we can't let you starve. I'll let you help the cook in the kitchen, to pay for your board until you hear from your folks."
So, Billy went to work in the kitchen. But it was okay for Billy to make friends, and he was soon chummy with the flying instructors. He coaxed one of the instructors to take him up, and before they had landed, Billy was getting some flying instruction. He went up every day, and in less than a week he was soloing-all unknown to Glenn Curtiss. Not satisfied with this, Billy put in another week of learning every stunt the instructor knew. Finally, the instructor said, "Kid, you are as good as I am."
Then, Billy walked into Glenn Curtiss' office again-the only time he had been there since his first arrival visit. He had made a point of keeping out of Curtiss' way. Curtiss looked up from his desk, and said: "What, are you still here? Well, what do you want?" and Billy replied: "I want a job as an instructor." A queer, startled look appeared on Curtiss' face, and Billy said: "No, I'm not crazy. One of the instructors has taught me. Come out and watch me." Curtiss asked the instructor, and he said: "Yes, I guess I shouldn't have done it behind your back. But the boy is a born flyer. He is good."
So, Billy took the ship up, put it through its paces, spun it, looped it, did every stunt that was then known, and finally made a perfect landing. Curtiss said: "Take me up and do it all over again." When they landed, Billy Said: "Mr. Curtiss, do I get the job?" and Glenn Curtiss replied: "You do."
So, in the year 1912, at the age of 15 years old (although he stuck to his 18 years of age story), Billy became a flying instructor. He continued as an instructor and stunt flyer until we go into the war in 1917, when he became an army flying instructor. There, his finished students were as many as those turned out by any other instructor, and when he said they were ready for their wings, they were ready and they were good.
We have told, in previous articles, about Billy's career after the war, how he barnstormed, took up passengers, instructed, and finally flew across the Atlantic, across Europe and Asia, to Japan. In the issue of March 29, 1928 of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Havey Boyle, sports writer and columnist wrote the following:
"He is between 35 and 40, of medium height, and inclined to heaviness. His hair shows a streak or so of gray. A short mustache is becoming. His eyes are clear blue. He achieves neatness in dress without showing any signs of study in this regard. He has a naturalness-a mixture of justifiable pride and becoming modesty. His name is Billy Brock-and all he did was to fly across the ocean with a partner-Eddie Schlee. You remember how we read of their hop-off, of the anxious while they rode through the night through the fog and ice, and how at last they landed safely on the other side.
"Billy Brock was in Pittsburgh to attend the airplane show. He is now a salesman, selling the kind of ship he and Schlee used in making their historic flight. I have been close (I mean close in the sense of feet and inches) to such gentlemen as Dempsey, Ruth, and Tunney and a few others, but I never got quite the emotional thrill from such propinquity as I got out of studying and talking a few moments with this youngish Billy Brock, who defied death successfully in a flight across the ocean.
"By now his story is an old one. He took off when three other planes were making ready. Two of those planes and their occupants were lost. The third didn't get very far before it was forced to land, a failure. There were moments, Mr. Brock said the other evening, when he couldn't help but feel that the venture was going to lose-those periods when there was nothing but ice and fog to cut through. But it was not his story, so much as the fact that here was a man in good health who had stepped into a plane to take a ride with death. I thought, too, as he talked, of how many, many centuries from now his name and picture will be in the history books and encyclopedia. There is a kick to being so close to a man of-consider this-timeless and endless fame.
So wrote Havey Boyle, sixteen years ago.
Billy was never injured in flying, nor was any of his passengers. He never had a crack-up that cost more than a ripped wing or a splintered landing gear. Army officers, up until the time of his death, said Billy was the most careful, the safest, the most scientific, and yet, when necessity required, the most daring flyer our nation had yet produced.
Billy died of cancer a little more than twelve years ago. He was flying until a month before his death.